It’s the news the many feared: early data shows the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine may provide only “minimal protection” against mild to moderate illness caused by the coronavirus variant first identified in South Africa.
A study released on Sunday from a South African university suggested that two doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine provided “substantially reduced” protection against mild to moderate Covid-19 disease from the new virus variant first identified there, known as B.1.351.
South Africa said that it is pausing its rollout of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, following the release of the study.
But this doesn’t mean governments should throw out their AstraZeneca stockpiles. Experts say it’s possible — and very likely — that the shot is still effective in preventing severe disease and death.
The news could, however, be a major roadblock on the world’s way out of the pandemic, which can’t ‘end’ until the virus stops circulating widely.
That’s because the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is cheaper and easier to transport and store than some of the other vaccines approved for use to date and as such, was going to play a key part in combating the pandemic in low and middle-income countries. If the vaccine isn’t effective enough against the new variant, it could deepen the already huge vaccination gap between the world’s richest and poorest countries.
Less effective vaccines could force countries where the new variants become dominant to shift their vaccination strategy. Instead of trying to achieve herd immunity, the focus might be on preventing as many deaths as possible even while the virus continues to circulate.
And while the data from South Africa is no doubt a setback to vaccination campaigns, scientists are already working on updates to the existing vaccines to make them more effective against new variants.
On Saturday, AstraZeneca said that it is working with Oxford University to adapt the vaccine against the B.1.351 variant and that it would advance it through clinical development to make it “ready for autumn delivery should it be needed.”
Last month, Pfizer said it was “laying the groundwork” to create a vaccine booster that could respond to coronavirus variants.
“We see this all the time with the influenza vaccine,” Dr Julian Tang, honorary associate professor and clinical virologist at the University of Leicester said. Flu vaccines are adapted each year to target the virus strains that are circulating the most. Sometimes, the vaccine picked doesn’t match the strain that becomes prevalent.
“Mismatched vaccine seasons do allow more influenza infections, morbidity and mortality — but to some extent, this is inevitable as the virus will always be mutating first — then we will have to adjust our vaccines to match the new virus,” Tang added.
The UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Monday the flu blueprint might work for the coronavirus in the future.
“The jab is updated each year according to the mutations and variations that have happened and been spotted in the preceding few months, and that is manufactured over the summer, and then delivered into the arms of those who are most vulnerable to flu in the autumn,” he said.
When it comes to Covid-19, he explained that we need to be thinking about how to protect people in a similar way.
The good news is that developing a vaccine that would work against the new variants doesn’t mean starting from scratch, so updates could become available soon.